In Wyoming I walk down lonely dirt roads jamming “The Weight” on repeat. It might be the perfect song for waltzing through high deserts during the dog days of summer – perfect in the way it indulges the gypsy-souled, rambling mood, and in how it enhances the feeling that I’m nothing more or less than a dirty tired traveler moving full-heartedly through a great western American landscape.
I leave Rawlins with a plan to catch Chimichanga, who left a few hours earlier. About 12 miles in I see a rattle snake, then walk one more mile, and cowboy camp near a spring. I cook dinner in a culvert to block the wind. At 10 p.m. I’m about to fall asleep when I hear a sound like hooves scraping dirt. I fumble afraid out of my sleeping bag to see Cookie Monster. He’s standing there with his headlamp on.
“Sorry to come up on you like that,” he says. Then he camps nearby.
In the night a mouse eats one of my candy bars. I hear it scampering on the tarp near my head. I wake and bright it with my cell phone light. It flees and returns and runs over my sleeping bag, right over my stomach, and I pop up and send the little rodent airborne. It hits the ground stunned, revives quickly, and scurries off into the bramble. For two hours I battle the returning mouse, trying to smack it with my hiking pole as it makes raids on my food bag, until I’m finally too cold and tired to care, so I fall asleep.
Beginning late in the morning, Cookie and I walk a road that never veers. Twenty miles or more of two-track without so much as a curve. You can see the road; you can see your future; and you know: it’s nothing but heat and dirt and boredom. An entire morning of it, followed by an afternoon, an evening, a sleep, and more of the same, until we’ve stepped each inch of the 120 miles to Atlantic City.
The sun can’t kill me, I have water. Even though it feels like it can, the sun can’t kill me, can it?
Cookie and I walk and talk all day for several days, and I look for signs of Chimichanga. I feel bad that he’s traversing this desert alone. It seems so changeless. So hot. As much a mental challenge as a physical one. Every so often, at water stops, we find notes from Chimi. Sometimes he taunts us – “never gonna make it.” Sometimes he writes funny poems, “every time the wind whispers, it says the name Chimichanga…”
FirstMan catches us at a water source just as we’re preparing to leave. At one point, his water bladder fell out of his pack. Cookie, who has capacity for eight liters, lends him a bottle. We press on.
We kick up dust and proceed ad nauseam down dry dirt roads in arid airs, surrounded by so much space and impossibly gigantic Wyoming skies. Cookie, a Bostonian, tells me of his travels. He spent a decade touring the world. One year he circumnavigated the entire globe, bookending the trip at Burning Man. He tells me about the Community Boathouse in Boston, the Mahoosuc Notch, Newburyport and Plum Island and his mini sailing adventures around New England. The dude is conversant on everything from artisanal brewing to the destabilization of the Middle East, and – as we hike like ants in a desert that dwarfs mountains – he teaches me the difference between bourbon and rye.
The only thing longer than Cookie Monster’s beard is his trail-hiking mileage log. He’s hiked in the range of 7,200 miles. When he completes the CDT, he’ll have broken 8,000 miles. He’s got the sport down to an art. In fact his hiking style is a thing of beauty. Rather than sacrifice comforts for weight, he totes a monstrosity of a pack. The thing looks like a time capsule loaded for a launch into outer space. And if someone tries to give him lip about it, he says – with a playful smile – he says, “You know what, bro, it ain’t heavy if you ain’t weak.”
When I don’t talk with The Monster, my mind is out to pasture. An unspooling film roll of free-associating images, songs, random words, scraps of incomplete poetry, lists enumerating aches and pains, girls’ faces and bodies and snippets of scenes from the past; projections of the future. A reel of worthless thoughts:
– If the mountain-naming people let me name a mountain, I’d name it Ice Cream Cone Peak.
– The Red Desert is more greenish yellow.
– If people truly believed in fate, they’d take greater risks. How could any amount of caution guard against what’s already written in the books?
– There are train wrecks. There are love stories.
– This road is at least as long, dusty, and straight as it is idiotic.
– I would kill a man in cold blood for an ocean water from Sonic.
Midday is insufferable. We search in vain for shade. Mornings and evenings are better. I enjoy the wild mustangs, scuttling horned toads, and pronghorns. I love the late days’ long light, how it illuminates the blonde blowing bunchgrass, glowing, and turns the prairies orange – almost as if they were burnished. I take pleasure in watching aqua-green sagebrush wave in winds unceasing, especially when the sage reflects light like disco streamers – waving, dancing, psychedelic streamers catching and throwing light in rainbows of darkish hues. In these moments, just before dusk, the sage appears to bioluminesce.
I think I also see an apparent artistry in the way watercourses sculpt the grassy hills and in how the full moon hangs above crescents of peach-pink wispy clouds, almost as if these scenes were designed artfully – with an aesthetic in mind. Almost as if they were created to appeal to the human conception of beauty – although, on the other hand, humans formed in the midst of these landscapes – part and parcel of these landscapes – so much so that our very lives and lineages are woven into the fabric of the wilds, just as the wilds are woven into the fabric of our instincts. So it would make sense, then, that we should find these natural scenes awesome, if we are as much a part of them as they are a part of us, and if our forebears for millennia have lived and died at the mercy of the natural world’s power.
At the end of the day I walk down a line in pain and think in circles about existence and girls and food and wondering how my family is and where my friends from home are and the silk liner within my sleeping bag.
I want this desert to end. I want to walk into the Winds. Do I want this trip to end? Yes, today, I do. But maybe not tomorrow. Maybe I want it to end right now, but I won’t want it to end in five minutes. It hurts, this trip, right now – a physical pain, not emotional.
I try to enjoy the desert. Really, I do. But the moments of beauty are so widely spaced, and couched within an attitude of weariness, monotony, and a constant yearning for rest and water. I’m filthy. Coated in dust. A film of sweat-salt and dirt and sunscreen congeals on my face, thickening each day, forming waxy clumps in my filthy beard. My stomach groans because much of the water is polluted by cow shit and pronghorn shit, and this makes me angry, because I’ve got myself into a situation where I have no alternative but to drink shitwater, treated with iodine. And my feet hurt. Each of my toes, engorged with blood from the pressure of pounding, feels as if it might explode. I remove my shoes. My socks are hard as cardboard with sweat and dust and pounding. My feet smell of sweat and funk, and they itch, and when I rub them lightly on rocks a tingling sensation ushering through the soles of my feet is almost orgasmic. My toes swell. They look like Lil Smokies. There is very little glamour in this desert, and even less comfort.
We tank up. I slug two liters.
Our second to last day we somehow get the damn-fool notion to walk 40 miles. We get on the trail at 6:45 a.m. We walk all day – with three long breaks – until 10:30 p.m., at which point we top out at a hill above the Sweetwater River. A full moon shines at our backs. My moon shadow slides over sagebrush, and the sagebrush, lit wanly in pale white light, reaches south toward shadowy hills at the fringe of a silent landscape. It’s eerie how silent this desert gets at night. The river runs slowly, its glassy waters dark as black marble.
We take a ridiculously late dinner at 10:45 p.m. – at which point we’ve hiked 35 miles – on a bridge above the river, get up and stumble through the desert for five more miles. A pair of zombies, we stop at the 40 mile mark, which, coincidentally, is right where the CDT intersects with the Oregon Trail. It’s 12:30 a.m., fully 18 hours of hiking. We’re so very weary that neither of us want to pitch a tent. Cookie Monster says, “I’m gonna sleep right here, right on the Oregon Trail.” I follow his lead and we Cowboy Camp right on the tracks of the trail that brought nearly half a million settlers west in the mid 1800s.
I recently read an Irish proverb in a roadside cafe. It said, “The longest road out is the shortest road home.” I think it means to say long journeys teach you about yourself. If that interpretation is correct, then these long roads taught me simply that I don’t want to walk long roads in the desert anymore. It wasn’t a long stretch in the the basin, but I’m ready for the mountains.
I’m writing this now on my phone at a place called Miner’s Grubstake in Atlantic City, a town with two restaurants and nothing much else. It’s a great stop, though, because we’ve got food and beer and air conditioning.
Chimichanga just came in. His shirt is drenched in sweat.
“Dude, how was walking that thing alone?” I asked him.
“I actually liked it,” he said. “At times – like in the evenings and mornings – it was so quiet, there wasn’t even a single cricket chirping. I don’t think I really even opened my mouth for four days, you know, just because there was nobody to talk to.”
FirstMan came in just now, too. He’s surprisingly spry and jaunty for having traveled so many miles through that inhospitable desert. I guess each section treats everyone differently. The cool thing is we’re all here in good health and spirits.
From here we walk into the Wind River Range, after maybe another day or two in the desert. During planning for this trip, I remember thinking, “Of all the places this trail takes us, I’m most excited for the San Juans, Glacier National Park, and the Winds.”
We’re talking about making a 170-mile push from here to Dubois, skipping the hitch to Pinedale. If we make it to Dubois, that’ll be 290 miles and likely 12 days of sleeping in the great outdoors – a new record for me. It’ll be good, though. I’m ready to throw myself to the Winds.